There is currently no cure for migraines. There are some treatments available to help ease the symptoms.
It can take time to work out the best treatment for you. You may need to try different types of medicines before you find the most effective ones.
If you cannot manage your migraines using over-the-counter medicines, your GP may prescribe something stronger.
During an attack
Most people find that sleeping or lying in a darkened room is the best thing to do when having a migraine attack.
Others find that eating something helps. Some find that they start to feel better once they have been sick.
Many people who have migraines find that over-the-counter painkillers can help to reduce their symptoms. These include paracetamol, aspirin and ibuprofen.
They can be most effective if taken at the first signs of a migraine attack. This gives them time to absorb into your bloodstream and ease your symptoms.
It is not advisable to wait until the headache worsens before taking painkillers. By then it's often too late for the medicine to work.
Tablets you dissolve in a glass of water (soluble painkillers) are a good alternative. They're absorbed quickly by your body.
Suppositories are a better option if you cannot swallow painkillers because you feel sick. These are capsules that you insert into your bottom.
When taking over-the-counter painkillers, always read the instructions on the packaging. Take the correct dosage.
Children under 16 should not take aspirin unless it's under the guidance of a healthcare professional.
Aspirin and ibuprofen are also not recommended for adults who have a history of stomach problems. These might include stomach ulcers, liver problems or kidney problems.
Taking any type of painkiller often can make migraines worse. This is sometimes called a medication overuse headache or painkiller headache.
Contact your GP if you need to use painkillers repeatedly or if over-the-counter painkillers are not effective.
They may prescribe stronger painkillers or recommend using painkillers along with triptans.
If normal painkillers are not helping to relieve your migraine symptoms, you should contact your GP.
They may recommend taking painkillers along with triptan medicines. They might also prescribe anti-sickness medicine.
Triptan medicines are a specific painkiller for migraine headaches. We think they work by reversing the changes in the brain that may cause migraine headaches.
Widening blood vessels are believed to be part of the migraine process. Triptans cause the blood vessels around the brain to narrow (contract).
Triptans are available as tablets, injections and nasal sprays.
Common side effects of triptans include:
- warm sensations
- feelings of heaviness in the face, limbs or chest
Some people also experience feeling sick, a dry mouth and drowsiness.
These side effects are usually mild and improve on their own.
Taking too many triptans can also lead to a medication overuse headache.
You will have a follow-up appointment with your GP when you have finished your first course of triptans. This is so you can discuss their effectiveness and if you had any side effects.
If the medicine was helpful, treatment will usually be continued.
If they were not effective or caused unpleasant side effects, your GP may prescribe a different type of triptan. How people respond to this medicine can be highly variable.
Anti-sickness medicines can treat migraine in some people even if you do not experience feeling or being sick. These are called anti-emetics.
Your GP can prescribe these. They can be taken alongside painkillers and triptans.
Anti-sickness medicines work better if taken as soon as your migraine symptoms begin.
They usually come in the form of a tablet. They are also available as a suppository.
Side effects of anti-emetics include drowsiness and diarrhoea.
You can buy combination medicines for migraine without a prescription at your local pharmacy.
These medicines contain both painkillers and anti-sickness medicines.
If you're not sure which one is best for you, ask your pharmacist.
It can also be very effective to combine a triptan with another painkiller, such as ibuprofen.
Many people find combination medicines convenient.
But the dose of painkillers or anti-sickness medicine may not be high enough to relieve your symptoms.
If this is the case, it may be better to take painkillers and anti-sickness medicines separately. This allows you to control the doses of each.
If medicines do not suit you or do not help to prevent migraines, you can try acupuncture.
A course of up to 10 sessions over a 5 to 8 week period may help.
If these treatments are not helping, your GP may refer you to a specialist migraine clinic for further investigation and treatment.
Treatment for pregnant and breastfeeding women
Limit migraine treatment with medicines when you're pregnant or breastfeeding.
Try to identify and avoid potential migraine triggers instead.
If medicine is essential, your GP may prescribe you a low-dose painkiller.
In some cases, anti-inflammatory medicine or triptans may be prescribed.
Contact your GP before taking medicine when you're pregnant or breastfeeding.
There are some ways you can reduce your chances of experiencing migraines.
Identifying and avoiding triggers
The best way to prevent migraines is noticing the things that trigger an attack and trying to avoid them.
You may find you tend to have a migraine after eating certain foods or when you're stressed. By avoiding this trigger you can prevent a migraine.
Keeping a migraine diary can help you identify possible triggers. It also helps to track how well any medicine you're taking is working.
In your migraine diary, record:
- the date of the attack
- the time of day the attack began
- any warning signs
- your symptoms (including the presence or absence of aura)
- what medicine you took
- when the attack ended
Medicines and supplements
Medicines are also available to help prevent migraines. If you have tried avoiding triggers but you're still experiencing migraines you can try these medicines.
You may also be prescribed these medicines if you experience severe migraine attacks, or if your attacks happen often.
Medicines used to prevent migraines
Topiramate is medicine that was made to prevent seizures in people with epilepsy. It is now much more commonly used in migraine prevention.
It is usually taken every day in tablet form.
People with kidney or liver problems should speak with their GP before taking topiramate.
Topiramate can harm an unborn baby if taken during pregnancy. Topiramate can also reduce the effectiveness of hormonal contraceptives.
GPs should discuss alternative contraception for women who are prescribed topiramate.
Side effects of topiramate can include:
- decreased appetite
- feeling sick
- being sick
- constipation or diarrhoea
- problems sleeping
Propranolol is used to treat angina and high blood pressure. It also prevents migraines.
It's taken every day in tablet form.
Propranolol is not suitable for people with:
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- some heart problems
It should be used with caution in people who have diabetes.
Side effects of propranolol can include:
- cold hands and feet
- pins and needles
- problems sleeping
Amitriptyline is a medicine designed to treat depression. But it has also proved useful in helping prevent migraines.
It's taken every day in tablet form.
Amitriptyline can make you feel sleepy. It's best to take it in the evening or before you go to bed.
Other side effects include:
- a dry mouth
- difficulty peeing
- a headache
It may take up to 6 weeks before you feel the full benefit of the medicine.
If medicines are unsuitable or do not help your migraines, you could consider acupuncture.
Preventing menstrual-related migraines
Menstrual-related migraines usually occur from 2 days before the start of your period, to 3 days after.
These migraines are fairly predictable. It may be possible to prevent them using certain medications.
The treatments that are recommended are:
- non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – ibuprofen
- triptans – medicines that reverse the widening of blood vessels
You take these medicines as tablets 2 to 4 times a day from either the start of your period or 2 days before. You take them until your last day of bleeding.
Advice and support
There are some organisations that offer advice and support for people with migraines. One of these is the Migraine Association of Ireland.
Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE